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Just say yes! Just say no!

The drug war wages on in unusual places


We’re at war, people, and it’s the longest war we’ve ever waged–declared in 1972 by "Tricky" Dick Nixon. It’s cost billions of dollars and divided a nation. It’s filled prisons, making incarceration a boom industry. (I know, I know. Everybody needs to make a buck.) It’s also produced reams of propaganda … and it’s been a bigger failure than our misguided foray into Vietnam.

It’s the war on drugs, a war waged with words like "just say no" and messages like the memorable frying egg TV commercial: "This is your brain on drugs." Mmm. Can I have some bacon with that?

No, I can’t.

A funny thing happened a couple weeks ago. On the very same day, two items crossed my desk. One was a deck of playing cards decorated with skeletons and information about the dangers of drugs: "Marijuana Dangers–addiction, destroys brain cells, releases inhibitions, impairs short-term memory and judgment." The other was a book called "Saying Yes: In Defense of Drug Use."

Hmm. Interesting, I thought. The anti-drug camp is delivering its message with drawings of cartoon skeletons and short messages delivered on playing cards. The pro-drug camp is delivering its message in a book … a real book without pictures (not counting that Bob Marley-size joint on the book jacket). What did this mean, I wondered? Is the anti-drug crowd assuming drug users are unable to accept a thorough and thoughtful message and are best communicated with via cartoons and playing cards? Does it mean the drug crowd assumes the best way to convince drug opponents is through a well-reasoned, full-length book? Or have both sides misread the other?

Clearly, in "Saying Yes" we learn that pro-druggies can read and write books. Are we to assume that playing cards are the best the anti-drug crowd can muster intellectually? Or am I reading too much into this? Were these two items appearing simultaneously on my desk merely a serendipitous accident? Are there plenty of books out there against drugs?

I put "books against drugs" into Google and hit the search button. 845,004 hits, the first one being from the Drug & Herb Center offering "Detailed information on medicine and medicinal herbs from WebMD." Let’s try this again. "Books against illegal drugs" elicited 229,004 hits, so maybe my theory of the anti-drug crowd assuming the drug-crowd is a bunch of illiterate ne’er-do-wells incapable of sustained thought is erroneous. Or maybe those anti-drug books, like the pro-drug "Saying Yes," seem like a whole lot of preaching to the choir rather than the sort of arguments that could actually convince the opposition.

The main conceit of "Saying Yes" is that most drug users are successful people doing just fine in life, thank you. The book also talks about the lies and propaganda of anti-drug crusaders, especially about what it terms "voodoo pharmacology"–the idea that drugs make people do evil things (think "Reefer Madness," the hilarious 1938 propaganda film filled with venal drug users engaged in lurid behavior, which ironically is now a popular cult favorite among drug users).

Will this "Saying Yes" book convince William Bennett that we should legalize drugs? Hardly. Certainly no more than an anti-drug book would convince someone who works two jobs, pays his mortgage and taxes, and enjoys smoking dope that his "habit" is destroying the fabric of America. Which reminds me, wasn’t the first American flag made of hemp? I digress.

My other theory is that the "Death on Drugs" playing cards are–like "Reefer Madness"–most popular with people who use drugs. They’re novelty items, and I’d guess few people have decided not to experiment with drugs because they saw a cartoon of a skeleton with a straw up its nose cavity and a line of text reading, "Cocaine Dangers–Highly addictive, miscarriage or stillbirth, severe depression, seizures, respiratory arrest, cardiac failure, and death."

Of course, I may be wrong, so I visited the card manufacturer’s web site and read some of the "testimonials":

Dear Life or Death Playing Cards,

About two months ago I was in a store to purchase a pack of cigarettes when I saw your Death Cigarette Playing Cards. At first I thought this was a pack of cigarettes, so I picked them up to check them out. The scary information in this deck shocked the heck out of me. I purchased the pack of playing cards instead of my pack of smokes and now I keep the deck of Death Cigarette Playing Cards in my purse in the same spot my smokes used to be. Now when I go for my smokes, I pull out and read your deck of cards. I have tried many times over the years to quit smoking without success. Because of these tobacco education playing cards taking the place of my smokes, I have kicked this nasty smoking habit and feel great! Thank you so much for producing such a strong tool to help people to stop smoking. I owe you much gratitude and maybe my life to your product.

Sincere Best Regards,

Linda Katz

Santa Maria, Calif.

Wow! That’s better than hypnotism and the patch combined. I read on …

Dear Life or Death Playing Cards,

Let me tell you a story about a young boy named Timmy. Timmy, at the young age of 8, was addicted to many severe drugs. When he woke up each morning, he’d start his day off right with a swig from a bottle of scotch he kept under his bed.

I met Timmy while doing volunteer work at an after school program for disadvantaged children. I soon took a liking to this youngster who … could rip bongs with the best of them. But he no longer has need for bong rips, thanks to your ingenious cards, which were the key to him overcoming his addiction. After teaching Timmy Texas Hold-em, the game caught on like wildfire and he was soon betting his lunch/drug money away against the other children. It is evident that Timmy’s drug addiction was subverted by a severe gambling problem, which has, luckily, saved his life.


Nick Kershbaumer

Health Educator

133 Simmons Hall

University Park, PA 16802

I stopped reading.

The war on drugs wages on, true, but it seems to have reached new levels of absurdity. Remember the much-ballyhooed but short-lived commercial claiming that if you smoked marijuana you were supporting terrorism?

Drugs users broke out of their self-induced haze long enough to argue two points: "Hey man, I only smoke Northern California-grown sinsemilla. Like, Humboldt hasn’t become a terrorist-sponsoring state, has it dude?" and "Wake up, America! It’s because drugs are illegal that they have to be manufactured abroad and supported by a vast criminal network. Legalize drugs and drug users will be supporting the American economy. It’s really the government’s misguided prohibition of drugs that’s supporting terrorism."

The really bright ones even brought up the Iran-Contra affair and other American government dealings with regimes funded by drugs. But none of these arguments seems to make a whit of difference, just like the anti-drug messages have had no effect in curtailing drug use. Of course, all this back-and-forth is a good thing. As Joseph Joubert said, "It is better to debate a point without settling it than to settle a point without debating it." What seems to be missing among all these playing cards and books and TV commercials and "just say no" mottos is a solution, but then many of our most volatile issues have no simple solution. That’s where compromise comes in, and compromise always makes everyone involved unhappy.

Medical marijuana doesn’t go far enough for the drug crowd but goes too far as far as the anti-drug crusaders are concerned. Lax marijuana laws or laws that allow first-time offenders to seek treatment rather than be incarcerated upset the hardliners but are still too draconian for proponents of personal liberties. The real question is: Will we ever find our way out of this expensive, ineffective quagmire we call the war on drugs? Maybe, but we’ll have a lot fewer novelty cards and books with big joints on them, and maybe that’s the real tragedy, ’cause everybody needs to earn a buck. Æ

Glen Starkey rolls up playing cards and smokes ’em.

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